Odis and the Wiccomiss

My two-mile run route, back in the day, included Tockwogh Lane. That name didn’t mean much to me; it was an old Indian name for something-or-other. Very little, indeed, is known about the people who were referred to by that name. It is seen, pretty much exclusively in historical accounts, in the journal of Captain John Smith‘s explorations of the Northern Chesapeake in 1608. He met a small fleet of canoes at the mouth of the Sassafras River. The warriors escorted the Englishmen to their town, and welcomed them. Smith wrote, “Their men, women, and children with dances, songs, fruits, furs, and what they had, kindly welcomed us, spreading mats for us to sit on, stretching their best abilities to express their loves.”

bridgemarkerIt seemed clear to me that Odis would trace his heritage to those people — but, was that even possible? Subsequent to John Smith’s account, not a blessed word exists in writing about the people of Tockwogh. I put it that way, rather than “the Tockwogh people,” because in fact, Tockwogh was the name of a town, not of a tribe. After much searching, I found out that the tribe was actually named the Wiccomiss (it was also sometimes referred to as the Ozinie, but it seems that Ozinie was also the name of a town). These people lived in the infinitely hospitable region of the Central Eastern Shore from time immemorial. They were Algonquian in language, and were related to the Nanticoke people from a bit further south (about whom a bit more is known). The “wico” in Maryland’s Wicomico County comes from an Algonquian word that means home or hearth.

Knowledge of the Wiccomiss clings tenuously to the historical record in the form of two 1938 articles (first, second) by historian William B. Marye in the journal American Antiquity, called “The Wiccomiss Indians of Maryland.” They lived in the area between the Choptank and Sassafras rivers; they made long lodges of bark and navigated the river in dugout canoes. And they suffered the bad luck of occupying some prime real estate. The Susquehannock, their Iroquoian rivals to the North, were willing to buy peace with the English settlers through abetting the extermination of the Wiccomiss.

Thus it was that in 1642, Kent County, Maryland was founded — and that same year, following a single violent encounter, the colonial government’s campaign against the Wiccomiss was formally begun. Three decades later, any surviving Wiccomiss people were either dead, or assimilated into the Nanticoke tribe. There are reports of some Wiccomiss being sold into slavery in Barbados.

Odis’s identification of his Wiccomiss heritage was conjectural. His mother firmly believed herself to be a descendant of the people of Tockwogh, but her evidence for that was based on faith. If it was true, though, then he had the distinction of being the last survivor of the first Native American nation to be explicitly targeted for elimination by European settlers.

Indian bread really was a thing. It was a kind of fungal growth on tree roots, also termed “tuckahoe” (which may be connected with “tockwogh”). (There was also a tuckahoe plant, which was also edible and grew in the region.) Odis liked to fry indian bread with onions; he thought it was very nutritious. Sean thought it was disgusting.

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